Sense and sensuality: The poet Richard Dehmel

Richard Dehmel
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

Richard Dehmel is best known in the music world as the creator of the poem Verklärte Nacht, the model for Arnold Schoenberg’s composition of the same name. The eroticism and pathos of his texts inspired countless other composers, from Richard Strauss to Kurt Weill.

Dehmel came to the public’s attention as the result of a scandal. Indicted for blasphemy by a colleague, he was sentenced in 1897 to have his poem Venus consolatrix partially censored. In it, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene merge to form Venus, who gives comfort through the act of love. For Dehmel, the trial was a blessing: he was known until then only in lyrical circles, but suddenly became the literary star of the hour and with his “Zwei Menschen: Roman in Romanzen” even became famous.

Eroticism, sensuality and pathos

“I am rooted between Nietzsche and Liliencron (Schiller and Goethe, Wagner and Böcklin),” as he once described himself. Artists such as Max Klinger and poets such as Otto Julius Bierbaum were his friends, and Frank Wedekind called him “the greatest German poet”. A constant theme connected him to Wedekind: not to stylise human nature as an ideal, but to understand it comprehensively. This included mind and body, sense and sensuality, intellect and emotion, the whole range of the human dichotomy. This was inflammatory, but also reflected the spirit of the times.

For Dehmel, sex and sensuality were dangerously close. There was a lot of pathos in late, overwrought Jugendstil – content and form were sometimes out of proportion. Nevertheless, many composers felt inspired by Dehmel’s lines, and so in 1913 he could look back on half a thousand settings of his works, by Strauss, Pfitzner and Reger, by Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Webern, by Weill and Dessau.

But his fame only lasted for about two decades, and after his death in 1920 the veneration faded. Nevertheless, Dehmel remains a pioneer: inspired by his ideas, poetry became more dynamic. And his name also lives on – albeit mainly thanks to music in which not a single one of his words is heard.

The article was originally written for the programme booklet for the season-opening concert on 28 August 2020

Richard Dehmel's poem "Verklärte Nacht" is also said to have autobiographical references. The poet with his wife Ida in the garden of the Nietzsche Archive, 1904
(Photo: Wikimedia commons)